Culture: what it means for your running

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I want to get back to the basics of this blog: my contention that Culture is the central factor to consider when you think about running in any way. When you ask yourself ‘how should I train’, ‘why do we train the way we do’, ‘why is one runner more successful than another or why is one running country more successful than another’ or even ‘why is there such disputes about nutrition and footwear’ and similar questions, it always comes back: the prevailing Running Culture.

The Secret of Our Success

I could write an entire book about Joseph Henrich’s new book ‘The secret of our success – how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter’, so let me begin by trying to explain the incredible relevance of the central contention of the book: that culture has co-opted evolution and now drive natural selection not just of our genes but of our ideas. That our unique human advantage is not that we are great throwers, great runners or great tool-makers but instead that we have adapted to a form of social learning – transmitted through Culture – which allows individual humans to learn things, even our brightest minds could never figure out in one lifetime.

Throughout ‘The Secret of Our Success’, Henrich provides evidence of how individuals or small groups of humans fail to come up with solutions in the face of new crises – such as being marooned in the Arctic. Even groups of hundreds of trained men do not suddenly figure out how to hunt seal or build igloos. Instead our cultural solutions and artifacts are created as the results of multiple minor – often accidental – discoveries, which Henrich calls ‘Cultural Packages’ – that eventually become combined into our more advaned know-how.

You see A and B but not A to B

For this reason humans are great mimickers. We are such great mimickers that it impairs our decision-making in many strategic games and scenarios where we can often be outperformed by Chimpanzees (a less cultural species, less prone to ‘making mistakes’ by mimicking). Instead of trusting basic logic or our own intuition, we ‘follow the others’. While this can have negative consequences, it is a tendency that has kept our species alive. The families who thrived and were healthy because of how they prepared a certain type of plant or fish before eating it, were copied more frequently. The people who copied the thriving family had more kids and their cultural norms (how to prepare the plant or fish) were transmitted to the next generation. All this happens without any causal knowledge on part of the families of ‘why it works’ (such reasoning tends to come much later as the science becomes available). Without understanding why something works, we are inclined to copy it if it seems to be successful. We copy based on the perceived prestige of the individuals, we observe and prestige is a topic I will return to in much more detail to explain how we learn from other runners and coaches, why it’s generally a good thing and what pit-falls you must avoid due to your ‘pre-programming’. You can say we ‘take it on faith’ and our entire species is inclined to have a low tolerance to people who break cultural norms because of this subconscious understanding that our main advantage as a species is our ability to transmit solutions beyond the wisdom of the individual through our Culture.

Who is a good transmitter of cultural information? Who is not?

If you are a keen student of our sport, you will have noticed that most training methods follow the basic course charted above. Knowledge about ‘how we do things’ are transmitted culturally between coaches and coaches, runners and runners and runners and coaches through generations – often subconsciously ‘copied’ by observing the prestige of an individual measured generally by their success and other desirable personal qualities. Scientists later try to establish in laboratories why it works (often unsuccessfully as it is multifactorial, complex and not easily reducible to random-controlled trials or other single and low-variable experiments).

To be unsccessful we therefore need to understand:

  • How does this cultural transmission work?
  • What are the drawbacks of this cultural learning?
  • Who should I choose to learn from?
  • How has cultural evolution hijacked and redirected natural selection and what effect has it had on our genes? How does this shed completely new light by many views held by people dealing with ‘traditional’ natural selection and the naturalistic fallacy

Joseph Henrich sums up our problem:

“Relatively early in our species lineage, surviving by one’s wits alone without leaning on any cultural know-how from prior generations meant getting outcompeted by better cultural learners, who put their efforts into focusing selectively on what and from whom to learn.”

This is a pretty clear message for runners and coaches: if you want to be successful do not try to ‘figure it all out on your own’ but instead lean on the cultural know-how from previous generations even when it is uncertain why their methods work. Put your effort into focusing on ‘what’ and ‘from whom’ to learn – essentially Arthur Lydiard’s advice that ‘look at the athletes of a coach – you’ll end up like them’. Advice that throws up many pit-falls in itself because the links between current training and short and long-term training results are often opaque – take, for instance the example of Mo Farah moving onto Alberto Salazar shortly before his big breakthrough. Salazar as a coach receives most of the attention although the foundation was probably put in place by his old coach Alan Storey. This is not an isolated story but instead very common across many sports. Sometimes the coach has nothing to do with the success (in fact, he may have made the athlete a bit worse but it was inconsequantial).

The next instalments on this blog will deep-dive into these questions and what we can adopt from this understanding as humans as a cultural species to make better choices as coaches and athletes.